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NGOs a No-Go at the WSF?

There are some more reflections coming out about the recent World Social Forum. South Africa-based scholar activist Patrick Bond does a nice roundup of some of these and provides some further analysis about the various opinions about what is needed for the Forum’s future.

Quite a few people cite the perceived dominance of well-funded largely Northern NGOs at the Forum and the tensions between NGOs and social movements as being one of the major issues of this year’s WSF. The dramatic contrast between well-resourced Northern aid agencies flying in dozens of delegates (wearing said aid agency’s t-shirts and bling) to attend their own workshops, and the Kenyan poor who couldn’t even afford to get in (let alone eat, or buy said agency’s t-shirts) was a stark reminder of the disparity within the ‘global justice movement’ itself.

Henning Melber, Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, writing in the Namibian Big Issue, observes that:

‘Many locals were simply denied access originally, because they were too poor to pay the registration fee. Others from further away were unable to fork out the travel costs and local expenses. Instead, the dominance of worldwide operating NGOs (including foundations of political parties, the trade unions and the churches) as well as representatives of other institutions more or less directly linked to state agencies played a visibly dominant role and illustrated the obvious dividing lines between grassroots activists, scholars and other professionally concerned “do gooders” from different spheres and social backgrounds.’

Dan Morrison, writing in COA News, warns that:

‘A greater diversity of people(s) can now be seen to lay claim to differing senses of experience and ownership over the WSF process and one great challenge for those involved in their own movements is to express alternatives by addressing the drastic social inequalities and discrepant privileges that exist in and between participants. It is of great importance that the Forum does not again repeat the reproduction of capitalist relations that made conditions very difficult for those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds to both participate on equal footing and exercise their voices in an equal manner to those who came from Northern countries or who had the capacity to self organize events.’

Pambazuka’s Firoze Manji finds:

‘This event had all the features of a trade fair – those with greater wealth had more events in the calendar, larger (and more comfortable) spaces, more propaganda – and therefore a larger voice. Thus the usual gaggle of quasi donor/International NGOs claimed a greater presence than national organizations – not because what they had to say was more important or more relevant to the theme of the WSF, but because, essentially, they had greater budgets at their command. Thus the WSF was not immune from the laws of (neoliberal) market forces. There was no leveling of the playing field. This was more a World NGO Forum than an anti-capitalist mobilization, lightly peppered with social activists and grassroots movements.’

Concerned Pan-Africanist, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, concludes that:

‘In that sense it should worry us that the African participation in the first ever WSF in Africa, in Nairobi, is more of a gathering of NGOs than that of the real social and political movements and peoples' organizations who can make lasting change possible. Many of our successful NGOs and INGOs, like their forebears, have become gatekeepers - or to use a better term - commissioned agents between the masses and their oppressors, occupying spaces for the poor and the marginalized when most of them do not or no longer belong to that class or share their vision of change.’ Abdul-Raheem earlier asks: ‘How come the nationalists freed this continent from the yoke of colonialism without writing proposals to any funder?’

Action Aid’s International Policy Coordinator, Eric Gutierrez, takes issue with Abdul-Raheem’s assertions. He writes: ‘My bottom line is, please, let us not go to the extent of denying the value of solidarity. When proposals become too cumbersome and have turned instead into mechanisms for manipulation, then by all means, let us challenge it.’

Which is just what the Assembly of Social Movements at the Forum sought to do, with some worried about NGOs promoting a ‘neoliberalism from below’. There was also concern about the presence of church groups and conservative organizations. A statement released at the Assembly denounced groups present who were said to be ‘working against the rights of women, marginalized people, and against sexual rights and diversity, in contradiction to the WSF Charter of Principles.’

Some people found the debate to be too partisan. One participant found the role of NGOs at the Forum ‘somewhat irrelevant’ and wondered instead why there was so little discussion about direct action?:

‘They [NGOs] had the majority of stalls with literature to be sure, but the workshops that I attended were much more likely to be dominated by academics or activists than NGO activists. I simply chose non-NGO workshops. One thing that was striking in its absence however, was any discussion of direct action, even in most of the social movement-y sessions. It wasn’t until I had gone downtown to the local and free “People’s Parliament” and heard a mill worker activist from Mumbai talk that I realized what was missing. He told a gripping story about an action by mill workers who had been locked out without backpay. Facing the police, 1500 workers doused themselves in what appeared to be petrol, and held up matchbooks. The police panicked, got a local governor to negotiate and received their wages (and I believe their jobs). It turns out that what appeared to be petrol, was only water. When I compared the response of the audience to this story to the gloomy faces watching a “Save the Children” video, I definitely knew I wanted to stick to the social movement sessions.’

This isn’t the first WSF where these issues came to a head, and no doubt the debate will continue. As New Internationalist co-editor David Ransom writes last year in our special issue on NGOs: ‘As soon as organizations, like people, lose the ability to recognize or repair their own flaws then their useful life is limited. The same could even apply to a superpower, as recent events in New Orleans seem to illustrate. It may be vexing, but one’s best friends are often one’s sharpest critics. And that, needless to say, really does apply equally well to us.’

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